Bad Times at the El Royale

There’s nothing better than seeing an ensemble of actors strut their stuff. The quality of performances can elevate even the most mundane stories. ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ isn’t ordinary both in tone and acting with a unique style. A tough and gritty thriller, it heavily relies on characterisation and finely tuned words. It’s always a pleasure seeing such films with this intense study in shady dealings edge of the seat viewing from start to finish.

In 1969, seven strangers find themselves stranded at the El Royale hotel which is situated on the California/Nevada border. Among the gaggle of guests are priest Daniel (Jeff Bridges), vacuum cleaner salesman Seymour (Jon Haam) and singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo). All are wondering what they’re doing there with several hiding dark secrets. All is not what it seems inside and outside the hotel as strange events unite the crew with startling revelations high on the agenda.

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a captivating twist driven thriller filled with surprises. When you think you have the characters and situations sussed out, something else comes along to scatter such thoughts. That’s no bad thing as writer/director Drew Goddard makes excellent use of the cast. Goddard knows how to generate menacing tension and surreal atmosphere. His use of light and shadow also underscores the danger with the era steeped in authenticity.

No one actor can be singled out as they all give solid performances. The mix of their mysterious personas run the gamut of feelings as fear, revenge, love and hate make for a potent emotional cocktail. The production design evokes the times very well with the hotel playing its own sinister part in proceedings. Whilst occasionally events feel stagey and a few scenes feel drawn-out, the skills displayed on all levels ensure engagement until the fiery finale.

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ may be populated by shonky types most would avoid, but it offers gripping viewing. It’s rare for an ensemble movie to totally fail as all attempts to play off the other in creating an intruding story. They do a superlative job in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ even if it isn’t an establishment one would want to stay in.

Rating out of 10: 8

First Man

‘First Man’ explores the years leading up to the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ swiftly came into public consciousness as Neil Armstrong said those words via fuzzy TV screens. That achievement had a profound effect on the world that still reverberates. It certainly had a huge impact on films with the sci-fi genre moving in leaps and bounds since. ‘First Man’ is an engrossing study in the human spirit and determination.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an astronaut continually dreaming of the stars. Supported by his wife Janet (Claire Foy), Armstrong goes through a brutal ritual to achieve the aim of his country to be the first on the moon. It seems an impossible dream but with others such as Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to accompany him on his mission, his goals seem near. When chosen to join the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, Armstrong wears the hope of the world on his shoulders as it watches him make history.

Obsession, grief and desire are what drove Neil Armstrong in ‘First Man’. Based on a biographical book by James R Hansen, ‘First Man’ does a reasonable job in delving into what made Armstrong tick. Like any good biography ‘First Man’ doesn’t make its subject into a holier-than-thou deity. Armstrong was a deeply flawed person in that his dogged determination came at a big emotional cost. This is effectively conveyed via his family life with Janet attempting to hold the family together amidst Armstrong’s mission.

Whilst the performances are as strong as expected, what makes ‘First Man’ shines are its depictions of the various missions Armstrong undertook. Due to Damien Chazelle’s solid direction, you are pushed head first into the claustrophobic confines and danger everyone faced. Survival was never guaranteed with the constant threat of death adding more pressure. Although ‘First Man’ is occasionally slow, the characterisation and startling CGI enable captivating viewing.

With next year being the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it’s opportune ‘First Man’ arrives in cinemas. It presents a huge visual feast as well as an interesting history lesson in what all went through. The mysteries of space are still vast but ‘First Man’ shows how the power of the human spirit can be ever greater with the ability to reach for the stars an easy obstacle to overcome.

Rating out of 10: 7